Prof Harjit Singh Gill’s tribute

Extraordinary dedication, sincerity and humility

H. S. Gill

To call Giani Gurdit Singh an eminent oriental scholar is an understatement. Of course he was a scholar par excellence but what was most significant about this extraordinary being was his dedication, sincerity and humility. Sometime back there was a controversy about his editing of the Guru Granth. Such an enterprise is always full of hazards but with Gianiji it was a simple matter. It was reported in the papers that the supreme authority in these matters, the Jathedar of the Akal Takhat, was supporting him.

What was really obvious from this whole affair was that the Jathedars simply did not know what to do with this gentleman whose scholarship, whose erudition, whose sincerity, whose dedication, whose humility could not be questioned. A lesser mortal would have fallen to the wrath of the clergy but Giani Gurdit Singh was above all that could be a cause of any theological dispute. And naturally, the case, as reported, was hushed up, but my impression was that the Jathedars just could not treat their own kith and kin, in every sense of the term, other than the way they did, i.e. very gently and very respectfully.

I am sure there are several aspects of the intellectual activities of Gianiji but I am more acquainted with two: his endless, incessant search for the manuscripts of the Guru Granth, and, his incisive and inspiring descriptions and interpretations of the village life of the Punjab. When the discipline of social science for cultural analyses was not yet known or in vogue in this part of the world, Giani Gurdit Singh wrote his magnum opus, Mera Pind.

In a style of Punjabi prose that is literary and scientific at the same time, he narrated the events, the ceremonies, the religious and profane affairs of the Punjabis with such precision, with such incision that with our cherished training in sociology and anthropology no scholar of the academic world has yet come anywhere near such profundity and such scientific depth. It is a classic for all times. It is the guiding star for all those who aspire to acquire scientific incision and at the same time the art of narration. The work is surcharged with the minutest details of the Punjabi cultural patterns in a manner that gives the impression of a simple sakhi yet even the social scientist of the structural mode cannot emulate such a precision and such an attention to the descriptions that generally go unnoticed even by the highly trained researcher. To illustrate this point I present here a few examples of his writing in a broad paraphrased text:

The name of my village is Mitthewal. According to a legend this name is due to one Mehar Mittha, the Chaudhry of Dina Kangra, who founded this habitation during the reign of Akbar. It has a number of kacha houses decorated with mud sculptures. It is a sort of an island surrounded by wild growth. Its memories of yonder days are sweeter than the name, Mittha, it carries in its historical past.

Amongst the few kacha houses there are some tall buildings with attractive terraces that point to the well being of the denizens of this small village. A couple of houses have attics which recount the tales of the old days of prosperity but this tradition is fast losing its allure.

All around the village there are the trees of kikar, neem, beris. The truly natural wild growth of jand, phulahi, karir is fast losing its plants. All we see now are the tahlis in every corner of the surrounding fields. (Mera Pind, 1995 edition, p. 15-16)

My village has suffered deprivation and negligence since ages. Nature has not been very kind to us. In this age of electricity and canals not a single ray of light has ever entered this habitation. A small canal, a tributary of the major canal of Sirhind, passes by my village but we have never received even one drop of water from its running stream. The elders tell us that it is all due to the fact that the old Nawab of Malerkotla refused to pay the due amount to the English. There are several tales. According to one, the Nawab wanted to pay less than the required sum. Another recounts that the Nawab did not recognise the currency of the British and offered them the coins minted in his own State. (p.17)

In a little village of an insignificant state, in a small community, a humble writer was born on a long night of cold winter. The first child is always a blessing of the Almighty Creator. There was rejoicing all over. My mother was obviously overjoyed but my father was especially happy for his heir as since long his cousins were anxious to take over his properties. Anyway, in spite of all the anxieties and tribulations, I did appear on the scene of this mundane world.

As I grew up, my father, not as a father but as a friend, used to tell me that since there was hardly any agriculture in the village and the family was heavily in debt; he shifted to the canal colonies in the west Punjab. He worked there as a contractor, constructed bridges and roads and made enough money to pay back the debts and build a comfortable house in the village. (p.34-35)

Mehar Mittha had gifted a lot of land as dowry to his two daughters. As history and legend get mixed up, we were told that a part of this tract walked all the way from the village of Kanger to Dhamot where it was called, Mian Ki Patti or Gauri Wala Khet. The second tract reached Delhi where the royal tombs were constructed. How all this happened? How these tracts walked, moved from one place to another is an interesting tale. In the beginning, the Patwari attached the land of Kangar to a village of Dina. Later, in due course, it reached, in the revenue files of another village, called, Halwara. This official revenue movement continued and finally it reached the capital of our country. (p.49)

There are interesting conclusions drawn from dreams. If one dreams of a tiger, a wolf, a snake, it is auspicious. It bodes good tidings for the family.

If one dreams of his elders—it requires the distribution of alms or food to the priests or beggars, for the spirit of the elders is wandering in helpless surroundings.

If a crow crows on the roof of a house, it announces the arrival of the guests. For the sister, it is very auspicious, for her brother would be coming soon to visit her.

If there is a spark on the back of black pan, it informs of the evil designs of the rivals.

If one sneezes, it is an indication of the remembrance of a loved one. Once a lady continued to sneeze for a long time. The first sneeze reminded her of her brother, the second of her mother, the third of her sisters and so on until the whole village, the entire gamut of family and friends were in question. She got scared what would happen if all of them descended on her house as guests…p.149)

There are rumours all around. If there is no murder on one of these festivals, what good is such a big day? The latest gossip…there was drinking and eating all night. A goat is supposed to have been slaughtered and there was no dearth of liquor. Some calamity is sure to fall on our village…Who knows who would be the victim of the wrath of the demon of death…The festival of Diwali must have its due… (p.177).

Finally I would like to present a very short comment on the theoretical rigour of Gianiji’s exegeses of the ancient texts, especially of the Guru Granth and other related manuscripts.  Gianiji certainly did not have the scientific incision of the modern social scientist or the historian but as I follow his scholarly enterprise I realize that he had an extraordinary grasp of what we may call the “discourse” of gurubani. Unlike a number of historians of the empiricist tradition, he could, with extreme precision, identify the nature of the work under his scrutiny.

If I use here the terminology of Michel Foucault, Gianiji had grasped the overall discursive patterns of the discourse of gurubani and the janam sakhis that enabled him to draw right conclusions, arrive at solving the most complex paradoxes which have been the bane of many a scholar of the last 200 years. He knew intuitively and on the basis of his vast reading that the theological or theologically surcharged religious texts are not historical documents per se, they were historically situated philosophical discursive formations and must be deciphered as such…

A slightly off the mark but for me quite relevant reference…As I looked carefully the photograph of Gianiji with his wife, Sardarni Inderjit Kaur, Balraj Sahni and Hazariprasad Diwedi, I was struck with extraordinary resemblance of Gianiji with Roopinder…I pray that Waheguru bless this family and the resemblance between the son and the father transcends the physical contours…

This article has been excerpted from Giani Gurdit Singh 1923-2007.The writer is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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